In an excerpt from his forthcoming Guided By Voices biography, former band member James Greer recounts Robert Pollard’s early career as a local sports star.
“Going up to Northridge was almost like going to Twin Peaks. There was kind of this obsession with sports, and everyone was drinking.”
—Don Thrasher, Guided By Voices drummer (1990-1992)
Robert Ellsworth Pollard Jr. was born Oct. 31, 1957, the second child of Bob and Carol Pollard. Bob Sr. worked for Frigidaire, a division of General Motors, and had shown some athletic talent at the high-school level but never progressed beyond his early promise. As a result, he transferred, to a certain extent, his athletic ambition to his sons, of whom Bob was the first, and consequently the first subject of his father’s hopes. “He told me I had a ‘golden arm’ when I was, like, 10,” recalls Pollard. “But he was more encouraging than pushy. If I had a bad game, he always said, ‘Don’t worry about it.’ He wasn’t like one of those Bobby Knight dads.”
Bob Sr. may also have been the source of whatever genetic musical talent his son inherited. “My mom and dad both were into Andy Williams and Frank Sinatra, and my dad was into big-band music,” says Bob. “He was into jazz. It was a musical household. And my dad could sing—he could sing like Nat King Cole; he had a good voice, so I’m sure that rubbed off on me a little. Just to be able to stay in pitch, to carry a tune—I guess you kind of inherit that sort of thing.”
From an early age, Pollard would make up a cappella songs to entertain his family, particularly his older sister, Debbie. “The first song I ever wrote was called ‘We Are From The Planet Mars.’ I wrote a bunch when I was seven or eight years old. Debbie really liked ‘Eggs Make Me Sick’; that was my first hit. But Debbie and I used to fight a lot. She used to beat the shit out of me. She was the toughest fight I ever had.”
Bob Jr. was followed in short order by sisters Judy and Lisa, and finally brother Jimmy, the last Pollard, born June 9, 1962. “Mom and Dad pumped us out, like a good Catholic family,” says Pollard, though he adds that only he and Debbie were ever baptized, meaning “the rest of my family are assuredly going to hell—isn’t that how it works?” Money was sometimes in short supply. For a once-a-month treat, the family would go to Marion’s Piazza—pronounced “pizza,” and a Dayton landmark to this day; its pies are served sliced into a multiplicity of two-inch squares, rather than the eight triangular slices familiar to most of the pizza-eating world—where the whole family would share one large pie. “Sometimes we’d get it to go, and we’d fight over who got to carry it in their lap on the way home, just so you could smell the pizza, because you knew you weren’t going to get to eat very much of it.” Bob remembers that he and Jimmy often ended up with only two or three squares apiece. “There were some people that had it worse, though,” Bob is quick to add. “There was one family whose special treat, once a month, was that they got to eat good bread, meaning Wonder Bread, and good bologna, meaning Oscar Mayer. The rest of the month they had to eat stuff from the Food Outlet or whatever.
“One time I saw a family having Thanksgiving dinner at Speedway,” he adds, “which is like a gas station with a convenience store, like a 7-Eleven, right around the corner from my old house.
Dayton, Ohio—nicknamed the Gem City for obscure reasons—features the proud motto “The Birthplace Of Aviation,” and justly so, because of native sons Orville and Wilbur Wright, local bicycle-shop owners and incidentally the inventors of flight in 1903. Orville Wright’s mansion still sits on a small hill in the southern suburb of Oakwood. Dayton also serves as home to Hangar 18, reputed storage site for the Roswell, N.M., alien crash remains; and to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, where the Bosnian peace talks were held. Pollard’s hometown is named after Jonathan Dayton, a U.S. senator from New Jersey, who, in 1789, was one of four out-of-state worthies deeded the land. Located in the southwest corner of Ohio, about 50 miles north of the Kentucky border, Dayton was first formed as a township in the winter of 1796-97 and incorporated in 1805. The area had originally been settled by different tribes of Indians over the millennia, some of whom left elaborate and imposing burial mounds (most famous is probably the Serpent Mound in Adams County, concerning which all sorts of occult theories have sprouted). Prostitution was legal until 1915; the city’s most famous madam, Elizabeth Richter, better known as Lib Hedges, died in 1923 and is buried in Woodland Cemetery alongside the cream of Dayton’s crop. Plagued over the years by periodic flooding, the town raised $2 million in the aftermath of the catastrophic 1913 flood (which was followed by an equally disastrous fire) to help construct five dams. A series of canals were also constructed and reinforced, which helps explain the name Canal Street Tavern, to this day one of the few places available for local bands to ply their rock.
In addition to the invention of the airplane, Dayton has contributed several items to American culture: the cash register; welfare; ethyl gas; the portable electric generator; the electric ignition/electric selfstarter; the original pop-top. Its skyline, such as it is, includes the Mead Paper building and one or two very old hotels. From the proper height, you can also see the town’s two rivers, glittering darkly in the spaces between buildings or through notches in the low hills: the Great Miami River, which is not great and does not flow to Miami, and the Mad River, which has been incorporated into at least one of Bob’s songs. The satanic mills of Dayton include a corn-oil processing plant and several General Motors factories. Driving through downtown late one night, Bob pointed to the Mead building, the tallest one downtown, unimposingly tall, and joked dryly, “That’s where the fifth plane was headed on 9/11.”
He went on to tell a story about how on that dreadful day an alarm was raised by the local citizenry concerning a plume of smoke rising high in the sky over Trotwood, a northern suburb of Dayton. “People had thought another plane had gone down there. Turned out it was a pig roast,” Bob related, shaking his head. The incident serves to emphasize a particular point regarding the divisions between North and South Dayton. North Dayton, where Bob grew up, is largely blue-collar, hardscrabble, uneducated and poor. South Dayton, on the other hand, is where the well-to-do, upper-middle-class, white-collar families live. North Dayton despises South Dayton. Northridge, the particular part of North Dayton where Bob was born and grew up and still lives, has a population of 21,848, which includes a total household figure of 8,988, of whom 1,079 make less than $10,000 per year. It is 87.9 percent white, and contains absolutely no one of Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander heritage.
Bob loves Northridge, but his relationship is tinged with a kind of helpless disgust at what he sees as the base ignorance of its residents, as exemplified by the Trotwood pig-roast story. Essentially, as Bob explains, Northridge is a kind of Appalachian community, peopled by rednecks who are generally referred to—especially by themselves—as briars, the etymological derivation of which is uncertain but may refer to the type of backwoods mountain men (found in the movie Deliverance, for instance) more typically associated with residents of Kentucky.
“Bruce Horner (founding member of the Monument Club, Pollard’s backyard drinking organization) used to say that’s how Northridge was founded,” says Bob. “That some briars from Hazard, Ky., loaded up the bus and headed for Detroit and ran out of gas in Northridge. So they just settled here.”
Whatever the circumstances of his upbringing, Bob had a relatively normal childhood. Or what passes for normal in a crowded house with a precocious, eccentric genius and very little privacy.
“My dad caught me once playing in the tub,” Bob recalls. “I had these army soldiers, little plastic ones, and I was moving my legs in and out to make them float toward my dick. And I was yelling at them, ‘Come to the King!’—the King meaning my dick. And my dad somehow saw me doing that, and he was like, ‘What the hell are you doing?’ So I said, ‘What the hell are you doing watching me?’
“One time Jimmy was in the tub,” he says, “and I was in the bathroom, too, sitting on the toilet, talking to him … ”
“ … And he accidentally stuck his finger up my asshole!” finishes Jimmy.
“Maybe accidentally,” jokes Bob.
“What were you doing in there anyway?” demands Jimmy.
“We were just bullshitting. I meant to frog you in the ass, and my finger slipped. Right up the asshole.”
“We were brought up in a time when it was OK to hit your kids,” says Bob. “People didn’t know any better. But the worst was, Dad had one of those hard yellow Wiffle Ball bats, the thin plastic ones. Man, those fuckers hurt. I said to him, ‘Just let me hit you once, on the leg. Just so you know how it feels.’ He wouldn’t let me.”
But at the same time, whenever Bob got hurt for whatever reason, he’d get up and run as fast as he could back home. “I’d start yelling, ‘Get my dad!’ One time we were playing lawn darts and I got one right in the leg. I pulled it out and started yelling, ‘Get my dad!’ and I ran home as fast as I could. Because somehow I knew, or I thought, that no matter how bad I was injured, if I made it home to my dad I wouldn’t die.”
A naturally talented athlete, Pollard had good reason to nurse dreams of sports glory in an environment—not just in his family, but in a part of Dayton where talented athletes were treated with an adulation usually seen only in Hollywood movies about high-school football set in Texas—that encouraged a single-minded focus on sports. “I’d known Bob since grade school, but always as just the athlete,” recalls onetime GBV drummer (and Pollard’s former brother-in-law) Kevin Fennell. “Didn’t know the musical side of his personality. I saw him in school, and that was pretty much it. It’s not like we hung around together when we were kids.”
“People thought baseball was my best sport because it’s the easiest sport,” says Bob. “Baseball’s fucking easy. It blows my mind when I see what major-league baseball players are asking to play nine-man stand-around. Of the three major professional sports, it’s the easiest for someone my size to excel in. Basketball’s tough because you gotta be either tall or super quick. Football, you gotta be a bad-ass. But baseball, anybody can do that. My dad used to milk my arm down after I pitched. I’d hold up my arm and he’d kind of squeeze the arm toward my heart to try to get the circulation back in it or some shit. He called it ‘milking it down.’ That was his aspiration for me, to be a major-league pitcher.
“I definitely had potential. If I’d had the right temperament and the right coach, someone who taught me to pitch correctly, I could have been in the majors, or definitely seen some minor-league action. I’ve seen pitchers in the majors that can’t break glass. I’ve watched them from down on the field. I’m like, ‘Jesus Christ, I’ve faced better pitchers than that in high school.’
“My senior year in high school, I won all four games in the postseason tournament; we went to the regionals and got beat in the first game. We were getting close to winning the state championship; we had a good team. Then I went to Wright State University. I was a relief pitcher my freshman year. We had a really good team my freshman and sophomore years, we had really good players. Wright State was all walk-ons at the time. By my junior year they started giving out scholarships. So they gave out nine or 10 scholarships a year—but the best players were now juniors and seniors, my class, and we weren’t on scholarships. So all the people on scholarships were sitting on the bench.
“My junior year my record was 1-4. My only win was a no-hitter. But my ERA was under 2.00. We just had a shitty team. My senior year I had the best record on the team. I was kind of the ace. But I had developed a bad attitude. Me and this other guy, Jeff Jacobs, we used to walk out to practice and kind of wave it off and go out to our cars. Because we weren’t on scholarship, and to me it was kind of a waste of time. I hung out with freshmen and sophomores who smoked pot. I had a bad attitude for four years at Wright State. I still have recurring nightmares of fighting with the coach.
“My junior year, when I pitched the no-hitter, I got into a fight with my assistant coach, Bo Bilinsky, who was a police detective,” says Bob. “It was probably not a good idea. My coach had taken me out and said to me, ‘When you learn to pitch, then you’ll be a pitcher,’ which pissed me off because of course when I learn to pitch I’ll be a good pitcher; one would certainly hope so. I got off the field and I was talking to Jeff Jacobs, and he goes, ‘What’d he say?’ and I go, ‘He gave that when-I-learn-to-pitch-then-I’ll-be-a-pitcher shit.’ Then Bo Bilinsky comes over and says, ‘You can’t stand out there with your thumb up your ass, Pollard.’ And I probably was standing out there with my thumb up my ass, but I said, ‘Fuck you, Bo.’
“I got up to walk around at the edge of the dugout, and I heard pow-pow-pow-pow—footsteps. He came up behind me and grabbed me and dove on me and we went down. And it’s funny, when we went down fighting—I was pissed, I was cussing—I heard all these noises coming from the metal bleachers where another team was waiting to play next, and they were all running down the bleachers to come watch. I could hear all these cleats hitting the bleachers.
“We fought for a while, then they broke it up. The athletic director was walking with me, trying to calm me down, but I was going, ‘I quit!’
“I’ve always had a big fear of failure. I wasn’t that good a student, I wasn’t that smart, so I really had to work my ass off. I always went to class, I always took notes, because I just—I can’t fail. The worst I ever did in college was first quarter of my freshman year. I had three Cs and a D. I was pretty proud, too, because that was the hardest I ever worked in my life. High school, I don’t remember having to do anything. I don’t remember ever doing homework in high school.”
Much to his father’s eventual dismay, he was the primary instrument by which Bob first became hooked on post-Beatles rock. “I’m old enough to remember the Beatles on Ed Sullivan,” Bob remembers. “I think I was about seven, and my sister Debbie used to buy 45s of British Invasion stuff, Beatles and Herman’s Hermits and later on the Monkees and the Hollies and early Bee Gees.
“But my dad started me in record collecting. He signed up for the Columbia Records club, 12 LPs for a penny, and he let me pick the 12. He didn’t mean to, but he got me into weird music, too, because I didn’t know what to buy. I’d never bought an LP; all I bought was 45s. So I based my selection on what the cover looked like and the best band names. So I got King Crimson and Moby Grape and Ten Years After, and I didn’t even know who they were.
“Then I got addicted and he tried to get me to stop, because I was spending all my money on records. And I continued to spend all my money on records, until . . . well, I still do. I used to take money out of my mom’s purse and buy records, and they would ground me until I admitted that I did it.
“I was lucky enough to be a child of the ‘60s, not old enough to worry about Vietnam but old enough to dig the music. There were so many great songwriters, so many great songs in the ‘60s. So even though I really liked sports, and my dad wanted me to be an athlete—both me and my brother—secretly I really wanted to be in rock.”
Because of Bob’s burgeoning interest in music, and consequent perceived bad influence, his parents banned Jimmy from Bob’s room, which posed a slight logistical problem in that the two brothers shared a room. “How am I supposed to stay out of Bobby’s room if it’s my room, too?” asked Jimmy, plaintively, to no effect.
Bob’s deep and immediate connection to the music he began collecting did not help his growing animus toward sports—despite the fact that in high school he was not only a star pitcher, but also quarterback of the football team and shooting guard for the basketball team.
“I just was a bad sport. Sports brought out the worst in me. I fucking fought, I fucking cussed, I fucking cried, I was a fucking big baby. I’m glad I don’t play anymore. I developed a really bad attitude about organized sports and coaches. When I was invited down to tryout camp by the Cincinnati Reds at Riverfront Stadium or wherever, I saw these 80-year-old men in Reds uniforms just yelling at people. And I was like, ‘Fuck these guys. This is baseball! It’s fucking nine-man stand-around!’ I think they ought to get rid of baseball. It’s fucking boring. To me it’s just been around too long, it’s become obsolete. I wouldn’t be hurt if they didn’t have it anymore.”
For several years in Northridge, during the period of younger brother Jimmy’s subsequent basketball ascendancy, the most famous Pollard in Dayton was not Bob but Jimmy. “Jimmy was God back then,” says his older brother. “And when Jimmy was God, I came up with this T-shirt idea, that he would wear a T-shirt that said ‘God,’ and I would wear one that said ‘God’s Brother.’ When Jimmy played basketball, I worshiped him; he was my fucking hero. He was good at baseball, too. His senior year, when he led the state in scoring in basketball, he also led the Dayton area in hitting. He batted like .540. He didn’t throw quite as hard as I did, but he was a better hitter. That’s because he had to bat off me all his life. After I’d pitch to him, he’d go down and face these other little kids and it was like they were lobbing it to him. He’d smash the ball.”
Jimmy was more than just Bob’s hero. He was a hero to many area basketball fans, which is not surprising given the astonishing track record he established while playing for Northridge High.
“In 1980, Jimmy was the leading scorer in the state of Ohio in basketball,” Bob recalls, showing again the extent and specificity of his memory. “He averaged 36.1 points per game. He had the single-season record for points scored, which I think was 887. He had the record for the most points scored in a single game, which was 57. He would have averaged much more than that—at one point he was averaging 41 points a game and teams started stalling the ball on him, to keep the score down. He was fucking phenomenal. And that was before the three-point shot. A lot of his points came from downtown, too. I’d say with the three-point line he might have averaged six or seven more points per game. But Jimmy says—and I kind of agree with him—that he might have averaged less. Because since they’ve incorporated the three-point line, people have been scoring less. Before, they didn’t worry about it. Now they’re out there laying on the motherfucker, trying to get the three. They’re not as creative anymore. Jimmy was creative, and he could score in a lot of different ways. He’d drive, and he’d shoot from outside. But a lot of his points came from 25 to 30 feet.”
After such a distinguished high-school career, it wasn’t surprising that Jimmy scored a full scholarship to Arizona State University, one of the country’s collegiate basketball powers.
“His freshman year they were third in the nation. He played with Byron Scott, Lafayette Lever and a lot of guys who went on to have careers in the NBA. He was about the eighth man. He didn’t start, but he got in a lot of games. I think his high game might have been 10 or 11 points. He had a chance to maybe start in a couple years. But then he hurt his knee. He came back to Dayton for the summer after his freshman year, and we played in a basketball league out in Fairborn. That’s when he fucked his knee up—he actually hurt his knee in a recreational league. He probably shouldn’t even have been playing, but you have to keep yourself in shape somehow.”
“I played my freshman year, it was fun and everything,” relates Jimmy Pollard. “Then I blew my knee out, rehabbed for six months, I played three days, blew my knee out. Rehabbed, blew my knee out, rehabbed, blew my knee out. And after a while the doctors were just like, ‘Hey, you’re gonna have to quit.’ It was a fucking relief! ‘Well, fuck it, good.’ I tried for two fucking years to rehab my knee. It’s like someone knowing they’re gonna die for two years. It was brutal. The last two and a half years out there all I did was rehab, play a couple games, blow it out again, rehab, get it operated on, rehab, blow it out again, get it operated on, rehab. You start to come to grips with it a long time before it’s actually over. I still had hopes, but I could see the end of the road.”
“I think my parents—especially my dad—were kind of disappointed,” says Bob, “because obviously sports, for us, was his dream. And if Jimmy hadn’t hurt himself he had a good chance to be in the pros.
“He was bummed out, because he liked basketball, but at the same time, what can you do? I had the same problem in college. I fucked my arm up. My senior year in high school I was blowing people away. I was throwing in the 90s, I was just striking everybody out. I hurt my arm in American Legion ball over the summer; I fucked my elbow up. It just popped. For a long time I couldn’t even throw the ball 10 feet. My arm finally came around, but it was never as lively as it was in high school. And my attitude was, ‘What can I do? Fuck it. Fuck baseball.’ So Jimmy said, ‘Fuck basketball.’ But I’m sure he was disappointed.”
“I got a letter, you know, that we got a new coach, and he said I wasn’t working toward my degree,” remembers Jimmy, “and so he was taking my scholarship. And I go, ‘Fuck it, good, I’ve been here three and a half years and haven’t even been to class.’”
“If he ain’t gonna play basketball, he doesn’t want to study,” interjects Bob. “He studied anatomy,” he jokes.
“I was ready to go home anyway,” says Jimmy. “And they sent my dad the same letter, so I’m sitting there and the phone rings. I answer the phone and it’s Dad. And Dad says, ‘So you blew it, didn’t you?’”
Excerpted from Guided By Voices: A Brief History: Twenty-One Years Of Hunting Accidents In The Forests Of Rock And Roll © 2005 by James Greer, and reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Black Cat, an imprint of Grove/Atlantic, Inc.